Posted by: ericgrimsrud | September 4, 2013

Climate Change and US immigration policies

If you happen to be a scientifically literate US citizen and do not dismiss the problems being caused by the relentless advance of greenhouse gas warming, you should consider also how climate change is related to the immigration policies of the USA.  The central question there is: if the Earth is getting warmer and people want to move from countries that are already being severely impacted by climate change to countries that are not yet being as severely impacted, should we take measures that facilitate that form of migration into the USA?  As will be made clear below, that question is a tough one that pits the traditional humanitarian instincts of the USA against a set of seemingly cruel conclusions derived from the scientific facts surrounding this issue.

For starters, let’s consider the recent recommendation of Hawaii’s Senator Brian Schatz.  Senator Schatz is genuinely concerned about climate change, but he also believes that the United States should be more open to absorbing its impacts on the developing world. When the comprehensive immigration reform bill was being debated in the U.S. Senate in June 2013, Schatz proposed an amendment to create a special status for climate refugees.  That amendment would have allowed the State Department to designate groups of applicants as being “stateless persons” for the purpose of legalizing their permanent  presence in the United States.  To qualify, their home nations would have to have been “made uninhabitable by climate change.”

I am sure that most of us have great sympathy for Senator Schatz’s recommendation. It seems entirely fair and appropriate – especially in view of the fact that the developed countries of the world are primarily responsible for the degradation our planet has suffered to date via greenhouse gas warming. Let’s now also consider, however, the recommendation that emerges when some basic facts associated with man-caused global warming are considered.

The only factor man has any control over in affecting the extent of future warming by the greenhouse gases is how much of the stuff he emits in the coming decades and centuries. That’s it – there is nothing else we have control over.  And the magnitude of those total emissions will be determined by two factors – one is the total population of the Earth and the other is the individual emissions of the subsets of  people that inhabit the Earth.  It is known that the individuals in the developed countries emit roughly three times the main greenhouse gas, CO2, as do individuals living in underdeveloped countries.  Thus a simple relationship for expected total CO2 emissions is:  total emissions will be proportional to  (population in undeveloped) x 1 + (population in developed countries) x 3.  Therefore, in controlling total emissions, it is the magnitude of the population living in the developed countries that matters most and climate-induced migration will increase that critically important number.  For every person that moves from an underdeveloped to a developed country, that change is equivalent to adding two new individuals to the total population of the undeveloped countries. Thus, if allowed, a high level of migration from the underdeveloped to the developed countries constitutes twice the negative impact on global climate change than do their increasing birthrates.

Now, one could protest “but these new immigrants will not emit 3 times more CO2 than they did previously!” The facts, however, do not support that statement.  The Hispanics arriving from Mexico, for example, tend to become just as good at consumption as most of us US residents once they establish their new lives in the USA.  After all, isn’t that why they came here?

In addition, if the developed countries of the world provide a safety valve for the venting of the growing populations of the underdeveloped countries, might not the populations of the undeveloped, as well as the developed countries continue to go up? Won’t the populations of the underdeveloped countries stabilize only when there is no relief valve for their excessive numbers?

Or how about this one?  If we reduced the emissions of people living in the developed countries to those of the individuals living in the underdeveloped countries, then we could increase immigration to the US without increasing total emissions, right?  The showstopper here, of course, is that both ancient and recent history suggests that this is not going to happen. Human beings just aren’t that good and there is no reason to think they get better and more socially responsible when they get wealthier. More likely, they tend to think they have a basic right to enjoy the high carbon footprint life style they have earned.

In digesting these distinctly unpleasant thoughts concerning immigration, it is useful to remind ourselves that Mother Nature calls the shots and She will be a cruel mistress if we get it wrong.  To my knowledge, She does not pay any attention whatsoever to the preferences of any of the species that have inhabited our planet. While dinosaurs managed to roam the Earth for some 300 million years, homosapiens just recently arrived – only about one-tenth of a million years ago. About 65 millions years ago, the dinosaurs were brought down by a sudden change in their atmosphere (it appears that sunlight-reflecting particles were produced globally by a meteor striking the Yucatan peninsula). And Man is now doing his suicidal best to bring down his own short-lived species by adding excessive amounts of greenhouse gases to his atmosphere. In each of these cases, Mother Nature responded and will respond in a manner that is now relatively well understood and readily predicted by science. While the dinosaurs had no control over their demise, Man does – if he uses that portion of his body that is supposedly superior to that of the dinosaurs.

Thus, the environmental refugee problem described above provides yet another dilemma and  springboard that calls for action on climate change. Sadly, this appears to mean that along with many other changes, we must prevent an increase in immigration from the developing world into cooler and more stable climes in the developed world.  I would like to be able to suggest a more “friendly” solution to the expected environmental refugee problem, but cannot think of one.  Nevertheless, I am all ears with respect to what that might be –  again while recognizing that Mother Nature will not be friendly to any species that  gets it wrong.


  1. The world’s homeless aren’t coming here. How about a homeland to be established by the British? Lots of land in the Middle East. Just take with U.S. blessing. We can fight later. Biggest gun wins.

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